Sometimes I wish I could download my favourite authors’ brains. Imagine all the extra things they’d know about my favourite stories, my favourite characters. Imagine suddenly understanding all the subplots and undercurrents I had missed because I’d been too thick. It’s one of the reasons why I became a writer in the first place, because I know everything about my world and characters, everything said out loud or implied, I understand the reason behind every action, the way the world operates, why I put things in order A rather than order XXX. It’s an additional, enriching experience you can’t get just being the reader. Of course, you being the only person who knows how your brain puts things together can be a massive problem. Because you don’t realise that you haven’t put the connections in your head, onto paper.
A writer may know everything, but if what you know doesn’t appear on the page, then how is the reader going to follow your logic? What the writer knows, the reader must know, and sometimes it’s hard to separate what you’ve actually said in black and white from what your brain is filling in for you. The problem is that unless these gaps in knowledge are pointed out to you, it is almost impossible to see them yourself. You know too much. It’s the one time where being a know-it-all is not in your favour. Which is why it is essential that you pry loose your death grip on your manuscript, and hand it to someone else to read. This someone else is called your Beta Reader. Beta Readers are an essential part of any editorial journey, they spot the gaps, they make you think about why you made something the way you did, and they help you turn your book from a pretty, fuzzy picture into a clear photograph.
In this post I’m going to go through how to pick and train a Beta Reader to give you the feedback you need, and some of the most common ‘holes’ writers have lurking in their drafts (which you still probably won’t be able to find in your own work, but at least you know what they are!).
How To Pick A Beta Reader
It’s hard to let go of your baby, so picking a helpful Beta Reader is key. You want someone who doesn’t just tell you it’s great, you need someone who is constructive and is going to tell you what they don’t understand or like. Generally you should send it to three or four Beta Readers so that you know the comments are balanced. So what should you look for in a Beta Reader?
- Someone who is NOT part of your family. Unless they are an editor, they won’t be objective.
- Pick someone you know is going to be objective and critical (but not try to tear you a new one). This person can be a friend, but again they have to be a friend who likes what you write and isn’t afraid to tell you what they think. If they come back to you with no comments on things to change, that does not mean you are the most awesome writer on the planet, it means you picked the wrong person to read. Pass Go, try again.
- In saying that you are not after someone that will tell you are a horrible writer, and that what you made that character do is stupid. They should not be attacking you as the writer, they should be dissecting the story and offering thoughts as to how things can be remedied.
- They must read voraciously in your genre. If they don’t understand the basic concepts of mages, witchcraft, wizards, dragons, elves, orcs, or flying houses in the sky, then it’s best you don’t give that person your manuscript about a fantastical floating island where people fight to the death on Magic Carpets. They’re not going to get it.
- Someone who has the time and is a quick reader. You may have someone who is perfect, but if they don’t have the time to read and critique, or they take two months to read one book, then they aren’t going to be your best pick.
How To Train A Beta Reader
Most people you find to read your manuscript aren’t going to be trained in the art of Beta Reading. Therefore giving them guidelines will help you get what you need, and will give them an idea of what they’re looking for. There are also certain tricks that will make it easier for you to get specific feedback rather than general feedback:
· Provide the manuscript (MS) to them in Word format. You want them to make notes exactly where the confusion arose and providing them with your MS in PDF or ebook formats will not allow them to do it easily (or you to access the comments easily). Doing it direct into the word processor is essential.
· Get your Beta to use Track Changes in Word so that you can see where their questions/comments are.
· You want them to make specific and overview comments:
- Overview comments: When they finish the novel you want them to give you an overall impression of it. Key things to ask would be: how did you feel at the end? Was there any point where you think things went too slow or didn’t fit with the rest? Are there sections you would switch the order of, or extra scenes you wish were included? Were the character’s personalities clear? If not, which ones and what do you think the author was trying to make them like? Did you understand each main character’s motivation/intentions?
- Specific Comments: You want them to make comments within the text when: they don’t understand something; they need more background information; when you have been contradictory; when they want to know why a character did a particular thing (this means you haven’t conveyed their motivations clearly enough); they had to read a line more than once to understand what you were saying (means your sentence is awkward/convoluted and needs rephrasing); when something seems too easy/glossed over/coincidental.
· If your Beta Reader sees a typo or tense change let them know they are free to mark it, however, proof reading is not the main job of a Beta. You need to stress that their main focus should be the overview and specific comments.
· Get them to provide examples to help illustrate their point, or have them offer suggestions as to what they think might fix it. Being told something needs to be changed but not how can be infuriating for you and anti-productive.
Now that you have some idea of what you are looking for in a Beta Reader, and in turn what your Beta should be looking for in your manuscript, let’s move onto some of the common ‘holes’ in a manuscript that leave a reader scratching their head.
Not Showing Character Motivation
Readers won’t just take things on faith, they need reasons, motivation and back story. We have the ‘Show don’t tell’ mantra drilled into us so often that sometimes we go too far the other way. Body language is sometimes not enough, a shrug for one character may mean ‘meh’ where as a shrug for another character may mean ‘I’m going to hide in a closet and scare you when you sleep’. In the examples below you see the need not only to expand upon body language, but also to give background information to a character’s reaction.
Accenting the ‘dangerous’ she looked him straight in the eye. She stared him down for several seconds. He swallowed, then his shoulders slumped.
“All right,” he said resigned.
~Priori – The Power Within - Draft
Why does he swallow? Is he afraid of her or uneasy about her? That is the implication.
Accenting the ‘dangerous’ she looked him straight in the eye.
He stared her down for several seconds then swallowed, his shoulders slumping. She was just too unpredictable. “Alright.”
Never before had a building so fascinated my attention.
~Priori – The Power Within - Draft
Because … it was under the earth? Because it was so different to anything she had seen on the surface? Because she knows what it contains? Because it does not look as she imagined? Because of its complexity?
Never before had a building so fascinated my attention, a new complexity revealing itself in every pass.
It’s inevitable, when writing a 80,000 word MS over the course of twelve months, that you are going to forget some vital piece of character background or minor superpower that you bestowed on your hero. In Priori, one of Beverly’s minor gifts, being able to talk to animals, became not so minor when she is attacked by a ‘Razorfin’ (yes, it’s just an obnoxious name for ‘Shark)’. In the original draft I was so caught up in creating drama that I conveniently ignored the fact that she should have been able to talk to said razorfin about not eating her. An entire scene suddenly needed rethinking when Isobelle said:
Can’t she talk to animals because of the Priori?
Bugger. Yes. Back to the drawing board.
You’ve Only Done Vague World Building
When we originally write a story we are just trying to get events down on a page, like a sculpture attacking a piece of marble with a jackhammer. The subtlety comes later in revision, and with each editing pass the holes get smaller. But sometimes there is a throwaway line that trips up a reader, or an inconsistency that they jump on about the history of your world that you haven’t explicitly described. The first example, the throwaway line is normally an easy fix, but the second example requires more thought. With histories you have to be careful not to info-dump on your readers and will need to weave and hint at the history throughout your novel:
A look of pure greed lit the unkempt faces of the two soldiers, for a rich reward came with our capture.
~Priori – The Power Within – Draft
What is the reward for? People trying to escape the testing or her specifically (the host)? In which case does the soldier know of the Priori/ her power? I think he needs to say something more specific that makes it clear the reward is for her specifically.
My first testing was on my twelfth birthday and since then I have had many more, too many to count. Once a month a loud knock on the door signals their presence as the Ruhle army heft a heavy machine into the house.
~Priori – The Power Within - Draft
Why are children being tested over and over? Surely a single test would reveal that a child is not the Host, unless they know of the stolen sholac and guess its use, or unless the power will enter only when it chooses, so kids have to be tested over and over.
I knew why the children were continually tested, but to show that required the dropping of clues as well as the invention of an entirely new scene. I hadn’t thought the information mattered, but clearly for a reader to trust me as a storyteller they had to know I wasn’t just ‘inventing’ plot points. Ironic.
Shit Doesn’t Just Happen, People Discuss Things
At times you just want to rush through all the boring ‘admin’ scenes to get to the action. It’s all well and good that you know this has all gone on, but for a reader, not seeing a discussion and just having things ‘work out’ is a little convenient, as you can see in Isobelle’s comments below.
Elitree gestured to two chutes, one for each of us. With a wave Charlie stood under his hole and disappeared.
~Priori – The Power Within - Draft
This is too expedient- the Master must say a few words. At the beginning he needs to make clear what he makes of her and what is to happen, and this should be a reminder. It is all very well that he is magic and knows all, but we don’t. We need to see that mundane natural conversation, it need not be more than the odd sentence, but make it a good sentence. For instance, he does not tell them where they are going before Charlie is dispatched.
As I said, these four ‘hole’ types can be very hard to spot in your own manuscript, hence the need for a select Beta Reading Army Of Awesome. You will come back to these readers again and again as you building your writing career. Treat them well and they will be a reliable part of your editing plan in the future.
Do you have Beta Readers for your work? What do you get them to watch out for? Please let us know in the comments below.